by David Abrams
Originally posted on September 17, 2013 at: http://www.davidabramsbooks.blogspot.com
Kevin Baker is one of the best novelists around today who can take dry facts from history textbooks and turn them into highly-readable, entertaining fiction. His so-called “City of Fire trilogy” (Paradise Alley, Dreamland and Striver’s Row) brought early 20th-century New York City to blazing life. Now he moves forward a couple of decades and burrows a little deeper into the city’s wormy underbelly with The Big Crowd, which re-examines the greatest unsolved crime hit in mob history–the day a mob informant took a swan-dive from a Coney Island hotel while supposedly under police protection. As Scott Turow notes in his New York Times review of the book, the titular “big crowd” is made up of the pols, mobsters, union goons and grasping business types who fend off reformers and joust for control of New York in the middle of the 20th century. “I’ve read few other novels that portray in such a nuanced way the temptations of power, the complex division of control in a great metropolis and the perils of political deal-making,” he writes. As Turow also acknowledges, The Big Crowd teems with characters–at the center of which is Charlie O’Kane, the American dream come to life. A poor Irish immigrant who worked his way up from beat cop to mayor of New York at the city’s dazzling, post-war zenith, Charlie is looked up to by millions, including his younger brother, Tom. So when Charlie is accused of abetting a shocking mob murder, Tom sets out to clear his brother’s name. In the book trailer, an actor portraying a mob goombah tries to explain the complex web of history in the space of 90 seconds. While I would have liked the guy to dial back the Goodfellas impersonation a couple of notches, I think the concept of the trailer, filmed in newsreel black-and-white, is a clever one. It’s a good way to catch our attention for what promises to be one instance of where crime really does pay….for the reader.